MORE VEGAS INFO
VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
September 2, 2013
15th Anniversary Special: From Cheap Buffets to Extravagant Meals
2013 marks the 15th Anniversary of Vegas4Visitors.com. Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of articles about the big differences between Las Vegas of 1998 and the Las Vegas of today.
I've eaten a lot in Las Vegas over the last 15 years. From high-priced to low-rent, from big portions to slightly less big portions, from buffet to sit-down to things ordered from a (metaphorical) clown's mouth, if it was edible and available in Las Vegas I have probably eaten it. Except for sushi. I don't do sushi.
When Vegas4Visitors.com launched in 1998, dining in Las Vegas was in the midst of an epic transition, moving away from the cheap buffets and $4.99 prime rib specials that had defined it for decades to a higher epicurean realm of celebrity chefs and gourmet meals. It would be years before the transition to a foodie focused dining scene would be complete but the pendulum was definitely swinging.
Most Las Vegas hotels were still focused on providing relatively affordable meals, but were starting to throw more and more high-end eateries into the mix, often fronted by famous faces. Wolfgang Puck had come to town with his legendary Spago at the Forum Shops and Emeril was kicking things up a notch with his eponymous fish house at the MGM Grand.
Gatsby's at the MGM Grand, the Buccaneer Bay Club at Treasure Island, and Andre's in Downtown Las Vegas were widely considered to be the finest of the fine dining outlets in the city. Then there was Bacchanal, the classic and kitschy restaurant at Caesars Palace that provided a veritable Roman food orgy (complete with toga clad waitresses) for about $70 per person.
Bellagio opened in the fall of 1998 and changed the game forever with its award-winning restaurants like Picasso and Le Cirque and then the Venetian upped the ante in 1999 with a slew of gourmet quality eateries. Celebrity chefs followed Wolfgang and Emeril's leads and by the early 2000s everybody with a Food Network show had an outlet in Vegas. Seemingly overnight the cheap eats were sent packing to Downtown Las Vegas and the neighborhood casinos and finding anything good and affordable on The Strip was like finding a slot machine that still took and dispensed coins.
Theme restaurants had started to become the rage in Vegas in 1998. In addition to Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café:, there was the sports themed All-Star Café at the Showcase Mall, the Motown Cafe at New York-New York, Country Star on The Strip (where CityCenter is now), and Dive! at The Fashion Show Mall, an underwater/submarine themed restaurant that counted Steven Spielberg as one of its investors.
But nothing has changed as dramatically as the Las Vegas Buffet. It got its start in the 1940s at El Rancho, where the Chuckwagon Buffet gave diners all they could eat for the princely sum of $1. For the better part of the next six decades it really didn't change very much except to get a little more expensive. And by a little, I mean only a little. In 1998 the MGM Grand Oz Buffet cost $8 for dinner, Excalibur's Round Table Buffet was $6, and Luxor's Pharaoh's Pheast was only $7.50. Even the "expensive" buffets weren't all that expensive, with Bally's and The Mirage both at $13 and Caesars at $17.
Of course that would also change with Bellagio's buffet, which was the first to charge over $20 for a regular dinner, a price that seemed outrageously expensive at the time.
Then there's the new Bacchanal, this time a buffet at Caesars Palace. As it gets ready to celebrate its first anniversary in September, the highest of high-cost buffets is still drawing huge crowds, serving on average 3,500 people every single day. This, despite its $45 (!!!) price tag.
Still, the pendulum has been swinging back in the other direction for the last few years. Every since the country embraced a new frugality after having its big-spending ways beaten out of it by the recession, more affordable eats have been on the menu in Vegas. Most of the new restaurants that have opened since 2010 have been moderately priced and casual, with places like Sugar Factory at Paris Las Vegas, Todd English PUB at CityCenter, Culinary Dropout at the Hard Rock, Gilleys at Treasure Island, and Carlos 'n' Charlies at The Flamingo all as examples.
I think The Strip is finding a good balance between the high and moderate categories and while the really cheap stuff is mostly confined to the food courts, it certainly is easier to eat without breaking the bank.
This is one area that I have a hard time predicting the future on, other than to say the more things change the more they stay the same. In 15 years I think your average Vegas casino will have a couple of high-end restaurants (probably from the next generation of celebrity chefs), a couple of moderately priced ones, a big and pricey buffet, and a steakhouse of course. About the only thing that is certain is that if I'm still doing this job in 15 years, I will still be eating a lot whenever I visit Las Vegas.
One Man's Art: Is The Act Obscene?
Make no mistake about it, nightclubs are big business in Las Vegas. Seven of the top 10 grossing clubs are here in town and combined they pull in more than half a billion dollars in revenue each year. Hotels are doing everything they can to figure out how to cram more of them into their offerings so when a hotel actively tries to get rid of one, through a lawsuit no less, you know it's a big deal.
The owners of The Venetian/Palazzo have filed a lawsuit trying to get nightclub The Act shut down. They say that the club runs afoul of obscenity laws with its boundary-pushing (some might say boundary-obliterating) cabaret acts, which simulate all manner of human (and sometimes inhuman) sexuality. They are seeking to revoke the club's lease and take back the space located on the top floor of the Shoppes at Palazzo.
The club is a sister to the infamous The Box nightclub in New York and mixes a standard nightclub experience with periodic avant garde performances on a big stage fronting the dance floor. They are absolutely adult in nature but whether they reach the level of obscene is probably up for debate.
Here's an example (warning: adult content ahead): a man dressed as a sort of Chippendales version of Jesus, complete with a crown of thorns, sings and strips to the waist to reveal his ripped and heavily tattooed body. He watches as two women take the stage and also strip to the waist (except for strategically placed pasties) and proceed to simulate everything from oral sex to snorting cocaine to urinating in a martini glass.
Obscene? From a moralistic standpoint it probably depends on your viewpoint, but from a legal one I can't imagine how. The key word in the above description is "simulate." They two women weren't actually doing any of those things, they were putting on a show. Since pasties and g-strings count as clothing in this instance there wasn't even any nudity involved.
The hotel is framing their lawsuit in the context of recent high-profile actions taken against nightclubs that have crossed the line into actual illegal activity. Planet Hollywood Resort got hit with a $750,000 fine after accusations of sex and drug use happening in their club Prive. The Rio had similar charges and fines levied against it after a dayclub at the hotel's pool, co-sponsored by a strip club, was found to be openly allowing prostitution and narcotics use.
The difference here is that in those instances the illegal activity was real as opposed to simulated as they are at The Act.
A judge is expected to rule on the case soon.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Last Call Award of the Week goes to The Buffalo, the neighborhood bar near The Strip that is closing its doors this week after more than 30 years of serving the local and tourist gay community.
The Speaking of Closed Gay Bars Award of the Week goes to Krave, the big dance club at Neonopolis, which was shut down by state regulators due to questions about whether it has the proper permits to sell alcohol. The matter is being reviewed by the city council this week and is expected to be resolved in time for the party to get back underway by next weekend's Las Vegas gay pride festivities.
The Still Speaking of Closed by Not Gay Bars This Time Award of the Week goes to Peepshow, the adult fairy tale revue at Planet Hollywood that is closing this week after a four year run. There are rumors that it may reopen in a new location but nothing is official yet.
The Yep, Still on Things That Have Closed Award of the Week goes to The Riviera, which has shut down its buffet and there probably isn't a single soul on the earth who will miss it, at least not from a food perspective.
Show Review: David Copperfield
After decades of performing frequent but relatively short stints in Vegas, illusionist extraordinaire David Copperfield is making the MGM Grand his home complete with a theater named in his honor and a contract that will keep him up to his old (and new) tricks through 2016. The only real surprise is that it took this long for it happen.
Copperfield is one of those classic magicians that is easy to overlook on the cultural radar, especially when acts like Penn & Teller, Criss Angel, and David Blaine are generating headlines for their stunts and mind freaks. But consider these rather stunning stats and facts for a second: at Age 12, David Copperfield was the youngest person ever admitted to the Society of American Magicians; his television specials have won 21 Emmy awards, the same amount as "The Sopranos;" he is considered to be the most successful solo entertainer in history, having sold over 40 million tickets that grossed more than $3 billion.
Should you be surprised by the fact that he owns 11 islands in the Bahamas or the biggest collection of magic memorabilia in the world? No, you shouldn't be.
Although he is most well-known for his big TV illusions like making the Statue of Liberty disappear or walking through the Great Wall of China, his on-stage demeanor is refreshingly relaxed and free of the kind of "whirling blades of death" drama that many of the magicians of his era were famous for. He may be a bit too rehearsed in his patter of personal stories and narrative framing devices but for the most part he just kind of kicks back and lets the tricks do the talking.
The show is ever evolving but some of the more notable moments from the one I saw include a bit where an audience member randomly picks a word and then that word shows up in unexpected places (I don't want to ruin the punchline but it's pretty impressive); some old-school slight of hand involving a duck and a bucket; and a big reveal of a car that had on stage witnesses literally gasping it was so unexpected and done so well.
While magic shows in Vegas may not be as omnipresent as they used to be, there are still plenty of choices and which one you pick should probably depend on your taste. Those with a subversive sense of humor and a strong appreciation of the ironic should go with Penn & Teller; those who like things with more flash to go with their substance can see Criss Angel; those who want a good laugh with their tricks need to see Mac King; and those who appreciate well-crafted tricks, performed by one of the masters of illusion should see David Copperfield.
Show Review: Recycled Percussion
It should come as no surprise really that a production with the name "percussion" in the title is not going to be what you might call a "quiet" show. What may come as a surprise is how crazy loud this "not quiet" show at The Quad actually gets, not just from the noise generated by the people on stage but from the audience members, all of whom are supplied with metal pots and drumsticks and then encouraged to go nuts. The group has a joke about being sponsored by Aleve, Tylenol, and Bayer, only I'm not sure it was actually a joke.
The group of four guys enters with a bang - or rather a series of them - strapped in to drum sets suspended on a vertical panel as if you are watching them from above. Once on terra firma, they proceed to bang on stuff - drum sets, single drums, improvised drums, things that sound like drums, metal, wood, plastic, and on and on it goes. They take the occasional side trip to make noise in other ways like a chorus of industrial metal grinders as a symphony of sorts, but for the most part it's about the drumming and their sheer energy and brio more than makes up for a lack of a narrative other than "let's make more noise."
There are a few inspired moments: one of the guys literally uses his body as a drum set and the brilliance/lunacy of the whole thing elicited ecstatic cheers from the audience; whatever you call the drumming version of a rap battle between two of the performers explodes into an all-out war of ever-escalating challenges; and the entire show shuts down briefly for "Totally Random Cookie Time," which involves distributing cookies to the audience for no discernible reason (hence the "random" part).
The show is family friendly and kids will probably love the opportunity to be as loud as they want to be and not get yelled at for it. Parents who embrace irony by yelling at their kids for being too noisy may want to go watch the flowers bloom at the Bellagio Conservatory.
If you can take the sonic disruption, this is a fun, energetic, and original show. Just remember to bring your headache medicine of choice. Or maybe a set of ear plugs.
Restaurant Review: Carmine's
The bigger is better mantra is a popular one in Las Vegas. Here you'll find some of the biggest hotels in the world, the biggest nightclubs in the world, and the biggest of a bunch of other random things (indoor atrium at Luxor; observation wheel at Linq; etc.). In a town built on the concept of excess things like all-you-can-eat buffets and 24 hour liquor sales are not only the norm but almost demanded, like a right guaranteed by our founding fathers.
Carmine's fits into that way of thinking very nicely on a variety of levels. First of all it's the biggest restaurant in Las Vegas (that doesn't have a nightclub attached to it). It certainly feels like it. The main dining room is a grand two-story affair with lots of big tables and comfy booths surrounded by acres of framed photos, paintings, and posters covering the walls. It's less chaotic than it sounds and winds up being a pretty nice place to dine. Out front is a patio along the Forum Shops mall main walkway and out back and upstairs are several private and semi-private dining rooms and a balcony for groups and events that overlooks The Strip.
But the food also fits into the bigger theme, coming in family size portions that are designed to be shared. Each item serves three or four people depending on how hungry and/or gluttonous those people are. This means that it is best for big groups who can order a bunch of things and pass the plates around while having a festive, interactive time. Singles and couples will want to look elsewhere unless you haven't eaten in a few days.
The cuisine is classic Americanized Italian. Garlic bread and antipasto for appetizers; ravioli, rigatoni, and manicotti for pastas; and chicken, veal, seafood, and beef done in styles with names like parmigiana, marsala, scaloppine, and saltimbocca. You'd expect there to be red and white checkered table cloths and wine bottles with candles stuck in them as decoration. While perhaps not the most inventive, it's almost a welcome relief from the upscale, Northern Italian served at most places with this particular cuisine in Vegas. Forget the risotto with asparagus and artichokes in a delicate mushroom blah blah blah, I want spaghetti and meatballs! And I want a lot of it! Food, good!
My table of three tried three different things - the penne alla vodka, the chicken parmigiana, and the lasagna. The latter was the clear winner, an almost impossible construction of hearty meat, thick cheese, rich tomato sauce, and perfectly cooked noodles. It was exactly as lasagna was meant to be. The chicken was worthy opponent, juicy and tender and smothered in gooey cheese but I could've done without the penne. There was nothing specifically wrong with it, but there was nothing special about it either. It came across as bland compared to the lasagna.
Dessert was a bit of a disappointment. The Italian cheesecake was only so-so and the strawberry shortcake was too heavy on the whipped cream, which along with the cake wasn't sweet enough for my taste buds.
They do have a small line of hoagies available at the bar for takeout if you are unwilling to cart around a wheelbarrow full of meatballs marinara.
Prices, at first glance, are very expensive. Most main courses are within a few bucks in either direction of $30 and go all the way up to more than $80 for the porterhouse Contadina. But remember that you're serving at least three people with the portions and that makes it much more reasonable. A table of four could order three dishes, have more food than they know what to do with, and get out for about $25 per person.
You would think that Vegas restaurants would be well-suited to deal with big groups, but I've found it doesn't really work that way. Most are designed to accommodate more intimate parties and when you do bring out the troops you are stuck with an "every man for himself" ordering strategy. This lively, interactive, family-style concept and the solidly dependable Italian favorites they offer should make this a popular destination for groups and/or people who are really, really hungry.